Summer has come and gone. We are now in the final days of Elul, leading up to the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.
Over the last month, there has been significant discussion on various Jewish platforms and forums around the topic of sex offenders and their place in Jewish life. Many have discussed if and when sex offenders should be allowed back into Jewish communal life, and the circumstances around those deliberations and discussions. To my mind, the underlying theme each of these conversations seeks to address is: is there any room for forgiveness of sexual abusers? And if so, where, when and how?
While I appreciate the conversations that bring these issues to public attention and focus, I believe they are often misplaced and miss some of the central tenets of what teshuva – repentance and forgiveness – mean in Judaism. While I am by no means an authority on teshuva and this forum does not allow enough space and time to fully discuss such a complex topic, I think it is important to reflect on a few aspects of teshuva as we approach Erev Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
I want to start by acknowledging and reminding you that the concept of forgiveness can be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. Unfortunately, many of the discussions in public forums ignore that reality, which is not only ineffective, but can even be cruel.
There is another often forgotten aspect. Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse are regularly presented with the argument that a perpetrator should be given the benefit of the doubt because they “probably have done teshuva.” However, one of the most basic tenets of forgiveness in Jewish tradition is the fact that sins between people are not forgiven by God before the person harmed has forgiven them. Put simply, teshuva is not possible without an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, an apology and an attempt to make amends with the victim. It is inexplicable that this most basic concept is ignored and these positions need to be seen for what they are: not halachic, and a transparent attempt at religious gaslighting and manipulation.
These attempts get even more presumptuous. I often hear victims being told to “leave it alone” and not “go after their abuser,” where the concept of teshuva is used to justify “leaving the past in the past.” It is absolutely true that some victims decide to focus on their own personal healing and not to “open things up” with their abuser; that should be every victim’s choice to make and they should be supported in their decision and its timing. But that decision, made from a place of personal healing and growth, should not be confused with forgiveness or teshuva.
In fact, I would like to suggest another perspective. The Rambam in Hilchot De’ot makes a statement that some consider controversial. “When one person sins against another, [the victim] should not harbor hatred and remain silent… Rather it is incumbent upon them to speak [to the perpetrator] and say, “Why have you done such and such and why have you sinned against me [by doing] this?” This certainly could be understood as the Rambam putting the onus of initiating teshuva on the victim; it can also be understood as empowering victims, encouraging them to voice their pain and demand the apology, acknowledgment, and validation owed to them. This Rambam reminds us that pressuring victims to “just let it go” is more than unkind; it is against halacha.
Another area where teshuva is used manipulatively with victims is through pressuring them to forgive their abuser. But the Shulchan Aruch discusses the idea that delaying forgiveness can be important and even be of benefit to a sinner when it helps them grasp the severity of their actions. In a society where it is still so commonplace to hear people excuse abusers, delaying forgiveness can help a perpetrator to understand that their actions cannot be excused away or “fixed.” Those who believe they are somehow helping a situation by forcing forgiveness are ignoring the realities of abuse, and are being cruel to the victim and ineffective to the abuser.
Ultimately, when discussing issues around teshuva and forgiveness as it relates to sexual abuse, it is important to remember that there can be no teshuva so long as the autonomy, healing, and wishes of the victim are not prioritized. That always comes first.
May we be blessed to see a year of peace, of healing, of justice, and kindness. And may we have the wisdom and sensitivity to support victims as they decide when each is necessary and appropriate.